Nathan Johnson
Pyongyang, North Korea, September 2013

It’s an eerie feeling arriving at Pyongyang International Airport. Yours is the only plane on the tarmac. The terminal looks more like a large community hall. Soldiers line the side wall, watching the crowd wait for their baggage to arrive. Foolishly, you have brought no carry-on bags and can only hope your checked luggage is also on the plane from Beijing – it is. You pass through customs and, after a security guard confiscates your mobile phone for several minutes, you’re allowed to proceed.

A minivan is waiting outside to take your tour group to the capital. Turning onto the highway you see uniformed soldiers walking in groups beside the road. These are your first glimpses of North Korea; you take out your camera and snap a few photos. One of your tour guides notices you.

“You are not allowed to take photographs of soldiers!” she says sternly. You lower your camera and decide it would be wise to be more discreet.

It’s election day back home, but here long lines of people at bus stops replace voters’ queues. The buses are full to overflowing. Other commuters get about by bicycle or on foot. People dress in dark colours – blues, greys, black. There is no advertising to be seen; indeed, little sign of consumerism. A new world opens up as your minivan escorts your tour group into Pyongyang.

Welcome to your life
There’s no turning back

Drab socialist-style apartment blocks abound in the city, much as you had expected. At night Pyongyang is cloaked in darkness – only the large propaganda billboards and the gold statues of the Great and Dear Leader are lit up. You would love to explore the city alone, but that would be both silly and selfish and land your kind tour guides in trouble.

In the evenings your group is confined to your hotel. You have few entertainment options, but the hotel karaoke lounge is open, empty and even has Western songs. You look through the song list and make your selection. It’s only later – in fact, after you’ve left the country – that you realise the irony of opting to sing Everybody Wants To Rule The World in North Korea.

The ‘hermit kingdom’ is often lambasted in the Western media amid images of goose-stepping soldiers, reports of nuclear tests and newsreaders trumpeting the exploits of the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-Un.

Even while we sleep
We will find you

In North Korea you see signs of poverty and hardship: poor quality roads, few private cars, men arduously demolishing large buildings with pickaxes, and people being transported on the backs of small trucks with crude engines that spit black smoke into the sky.

But that warm September you also find a beautiful country of steep mountains and flourishing corn fields. You witness the spectacular Mass Games in Pyongyang’s Rungrado 1st of May Stadium and a National Day parade showing off the regime’s military hardware. You watch young men and women clad in traditional costume, dancing in large circles to local music on the streets of Wonsan. It’s a reassuring sign that the enjoyment of music is universal. Back in your hotel you sing with gusto, struggling with the high notes as usual, but appreciating the simplicity of such a superbly-structured pop song.

You spend a week in North Korea. It’s a fascinating place to see and experience, but when your tour ends you’re ready to leave. You feel like you’ve been sucked into a black hole – the whole time you’ve heard no news of the outside world. In such an interconnected world, it’s strange there are still places like this. You only discover the election result when one of your fellow tourists reclaims mobile phone coverage as you’re recrossing the border.

Help me make the most of freedom and of pleasure
Nothing ever lasts forever
Everybody wants to rule the world.

Back in China you’re once again able to enjoy the simple pleasure of walking unchaperoned down the street. In the years that follow you reflect on your experiences in North Korea. Singing the Tears For Fears classic in a Pyongyang hotel remains a vivid memory. But while Mr Abbott ruled Australia for a short time, and though Mr Kim continues to rule North Korea, and while nobody has ever ruled the world, all of us can be thankful for wonderful music.


Nathan is a public servant who'd rather write novels and short stories. He has self-published three books. He writes, runs, reads and resides in Canberra.